A close encounter with a champion kickboxer in Japan

He might be going down but he won the fight

This photo was taken in 1976 and it’s of a fight between the Thai Junior middle weight champion (the guy on top) and the Japanese middle weight champion “Kame” (at least that’s how I think it’s spelled). Although Kame (Japanese for turtle and it’s pronounced Kam-air) won the fight, his temples were covered with purple streaky bruises where the Thai fighter had elbowed him numerous times when he had him backed into a corner.

I met Kame in 1975 in Tokyo through a room mate of mine called Simon. Simon was in Japan studying shotokan karate and we used to teach at the same English school. Simon had been on the English karate team and while he was a great guy and like a big brother to me, he obviously wasn’t a person to mess with. He used to do 500 sit ups day, could do the splits effortlessly, didn’t have an once of fat on him and had calluses on his knuckles from punching a makiwara board for hours.

I used to hang out with Kame and Simon (I was never into martial arts) and go drinking with them. Whilst hugely entertaining, drinking with Kame was always problematic as he used to urge us to drink more than we wanted to. A sort of terrorism by hospitality. So when Kame wasn’t looking we used to toss the sake that had been pushed on us, over our shoulders or pour it out into pot plants. Kame caught me doing it once and bit through a thick ceramic bowl to freak me out. It worked. I knew that Kame would never actually harm me (I was an unworthy adversary). The same couldn’t be said for Simon, as I was sure that Kame wanted to take Simon on. It was a good thing that I was the one caught tossing the sake.

Kame grew up in Okinawa were he studied Goju Ryu Karate. In his late teens and early twenties he honed his skills in Okinawan bars frequented by U.S. servicemen stationed there.

Having said all that about Kame’s scary side, he was a great friend and could be extremely funny. Kame and Simon used to regularly trash our apartment, sparring. Great stuff to watch in a 3 tatami room. They put quite a few holes in the walls and once knocked over the refrigerator. Kame also used to get us ring side seats at his fights. Going into bars with Kame was always pretty cool as well as all the local Yakuza and Chimpera knew and respected him. We used to always get free drinks sent over to our table, with a curt nod in our direction from them across the room.

Once, on a cold night before a match, Kame cover over to our place looking for Simon. Kame wanted to warm up for the match by sparring with Simon, but Simon wasn’t home. So Kame asked me if I was interested in taking a few kickboxing pointers with him up on the roof of the apartment block. I thought, what the heck, why not? I felt quite honoured, so up the stairs we went, onto the roof and out into the cold to begin my little lesson in kickboxing, and as it turned out, in life.

Before I go on, I should digress and explain that the Japanese tend to be hierarchical in their interpersonal relationships. Kame was about 10 years older than me and a champion kickboxer to boot (oops, sorry for the pun), so by Japanese standards I was subordinate to him. He was the sempai (senior) and I was the kohai (junior) and due respect was expected. This sempai, kohai relationship is one of the basic tenets of Japanese society. Now being my sempai didn’t mean that Kame felt he had a right to be overbearing towards me, but rather that he had a sense of responsibility towards me. Sempais take care of their kohais, it’s a bit like a mentorship. Conversely, kohais are expected to appreciate what they are being given and act accordingly.

The first thing that Kame showed me was the kickboxing stance (standing on one leg with the other leg raised and bent at the knee, with both fists up against the forehead with the elbows close together and close to the mid section protecting it) and how to block in that stance and then he showed me how to take blows. This went on for about an hour and Kame was really patient with me. Finally Kame got into the stance and said that I should try and strike him anywhere as fast as I could (Simon used to get me to do the same thing).

Needless to say, I didn’t get to lay a finger on him as he was just too fast and his defence was a quantum leap better than anything a novice like me could throw at him. After five or ten minutes I’d worn myself out trying to land a punch or kick on Kame. Kame just effortlessly blocked everything I had. He could see I’d had enough so he said we should stop and he dropped his guard.

Now at this point I would like to ask you, dear reader, to think (or image if you’re too smart for such idiocies) of a time when you did something that you knew was stupid and that was going to lead to tears, but you continued. Sort of like the feeling one gets when you are trying to open an old paint tin with a chisel or a beer bottle with your teeth. Just dumb, dumb, dumb.

As soon as Kame dropped his hands, I quickly and lightly touched his left ear with my right hand with a mock punch. Before I could pull my hand away, Kame, fast as lightening, lightly snap kicked me in the head. I know that Kame didn’t kick me hard as he could have, after all, I was still conscious and standing. I’ll tell you what though, my ear was so hot that I didn’t feel the need to wear a beanie to keep my head warm for the rest of the evening.

I could still feel the effect of the “lesson” two days later.

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